North Carolina Bishop Throws In Support For Sprague Heresy As Good For United Methodism
I am sharing my written response to an address made by my colleague and friend, Bishop Joseph Sprague, in January, 2002 at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado. Since his comments strike at the heart of our ecumenical and United Methodist Church doctrine and since they were made in a public forum, I have elected to delineate my views from Bishop Sprague's points of view and interpretation.
In the process of preparing this response, I have consulted numerous persons to whom I am indebted for their contributions, insights and interpretations. I do not hold them responsible for this finished document. Many of you will not agree with my views and others, perhaps, will concur. In any event, it strikes me as vitally important that we honor and carefully examine and interpret our Church's doctrine.
REFLECTIONS ON GUARDING, TRANSMITTING, TEACHING AND PROCLAIMING THE APOSTOLIC FAITH: AN EPISCOPAL RESPONSIBILITY
Bishop Marion M. Edwards
The young man had just been ordained an elder in full connection. Happily and eagerly, he was moving to his first appointment after his ordination: 32 years old and ready to serve. On his first Sunday, he met Aunt Agatha, the matriarch of this small parish. "Young man," she said in greeting him, "I welcome you to our little church. We are glad you are our pastor. I'll be here and support you in every way I can. But, I've got to say that I am 86 years old and have been around the block a time or two. You are 32 years old with the ink still wet on your ordination certificate. I'm not sure what you have got to teach me." The pastor smiled and took Aunt Agatha's wrinkled hands. "Ma'am," he said, "when I put on that robe and put that stole around my neck and stand in that pulpit and open that Bible, I am not 32 years old. I am 2000 years old."
Thus, it is. The responsibility of those set apart by the Church for pastoral leadership is "... to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints." (Jude 3) It's not 32 years old; it is 2000 years old. It is not my personal property; it is the gift of God to the whole Church. In our teaching and in our preaching and in our living out the gospel, we are constantly seeking to recover the fullness of that gift. Of course, that means more than repeating ancient words in Greek and Hebrew. It means more than wearing the sandals that early disciples wore. It means more than using first century images for twenty-first century ears. Most importantly, it means a faithful transmission of the Christian faith.
I am a bishop. You are pastors. We share a central responsibility. In fact, those are the words used in The Book of Discipline to describe one of the responsibilities and duties of a pastor: "ensuring faithful transmission of the Christian faith" (¶331). This is your responsibility, also, as you preach, teach, and lead in your local settings. Even with our differences in emphasis, in theological perspective, even with our differences in exploring the implications, we share one common responsibility: to transmit the Christian faith. Transmit the faith with nurturing care for the Church. Transmit the faith with evangelical zeal for those who have not said "yes" to Jesus Christ. Transmit the faith with prophetic witness to a world broken by injustice, mendacity, war and poverty. There is no choice; otherwise, we have failed to be United Methodist pastors.
The Book of Discipline seems to recognize that we bishops need a bit more reminder than other pastors! (Maybe it is the healthy egos which sometimes emerge in our episcopal ministries. Maybe it is the pride with which we bishops sometimes feel that everything we say is worth hearing. But more likely, it is the assurance that those of us in the Church's most visible and representative ministries must exercise the greatest caution to be faithful to the transmission of the gospel.) Thus, The Book of Discipline spells out with considerable clarity this responsibility for the bishops of the Church: "to guard, transmit, teach, and proclaim, corporately and individually, the apostolic faith as it is expressed in Scripture and tradition, and, as they are led and endowed by the Spirit, to interpret that faith evangelically and prophetically" (¶414.3).
Some mornings that is enough to make me want to crawl back into bed and pull the covers over my head. What an awesome, sacred duty! What a fearful, difficult calling! What trust God has put in your bishop, what undeserved and overwhelming trust! I have now been among you for six years. During that time I have worked to be faithful in my teaching task. I know that sometimes I have failed, fallen short because of the limits of my speaking gifts, fallen short because of the boundaries of my understanding, fallen short because of my own impatience with hearing those who claim to hear God singing a new song. I confess these failings to God and pray that again God will send fresh and saving grace. May my ministry become a stronger instrument of that grace!
Because I struggle with my own responsibility as your teacher, I know the tensions in my episcopal colleagues when they engage in the same struggle. In recent days, I have joined my brothers and sisters in the Council of Bishops in thinking about how we go about this task of teaching. At the heart of this conversation has been an interesting and disturbing dialogue between two of my friends in the Council, Bishop Joseph Sprague and Bishop Timothy Whitaker.
In late January, Bishop Sprague made a speech at Iliff School of Theology in Denver. Iliff is one of 13 seminaries related to The United Methodist Church. Bishop Sprague was invited to lecture at Iliff, and he chose to read a chapter from a book he has written. The book will be published next year. He has called the book Affirmations of a Dissenter. Since Bishop Sprague shared his personal theological insights in an open public arena, I deem it appropriate, along with Bishop Whitaker and others, to respond publicly with my own differing views.
Both of those words, affirmation and dissent, have a rich tradition in the Church. We affirm the gospel of Jesus Christ; we dissent from those things which are against the gospel of Jesus Christ. Take a look at the baptismal service. The notions of affirmation and dissent run throughout it. Sometimes this means that the faithful in the Church are counter-cultural, speaking words of judgment and witness over against what the culture says is okay. Thus, faithful disciples have spoken against racism, sexism, moral relativism, systems that manufacture poverty, even when the culture has said, "It's the way things are." Dissenting from those things which are against the gospel of Jesus Christ sometimes means speaking words of judgment and witness against what the Church says is okay. Does the name Martin Luther ring a bell? Does the name Dietrich Bonhoeffer ring a bell? Is it pushing it too far to ask, "Does the name Paul of Tarsus ring a bell?"
Perhaps it is wise to clarify here that there are different levels of dissent. For example, Bonhoeffer dissented from current Church affirmations and teachings in Germany on the basis of the Church's doctrine. However, Bonhoeffer reminds us to be careful about dissent which strikes at the heart of essential doctrines. He wrote: "False doctrine corrupts the life of the church at its source, and that is why doctrinal sin is more serious than moral. Those who rob the Church of the gospel deserve the ultimate penalty, whereas those who fail in morality have the gospel there to help them." (The Cost of Discipleship, p. 264 n.1)
I am not accusing Bishop Sprague of "robbing the church of the gospel." I recognize that Bishop Sprague cares deeply about the gospel. I am, nevertheless, suggesting that his "dissent" should be examined in the context of a more robust understanding of the totality of Christian doctrine. Thereby, all of Christian doctrine can speak to the particular doctrines Bishop Sprague holds in question. I believe such a process would be a safeguard to the content of the gospel. I shall return to this point subsequently.
Affirmation and dissent are both valuable parts of the Church's continuing movement to line the work of the Church up with the will of God. The writer of 1 John helps us see the importance of such conversation: "Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God." (1 John 4:1)
"Testing the spirits" is part of the work of the beloved of God. That means asking sisters and brothers of the faith, "Here is what I am hearing. Is that what you are hearing?" That's why Martin Luther nailed the 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg. In those days, that is the way the Church engaged in theological argument. It was Luther's way of saying, "Here is what I am hearing of God, but I need to test what I am hearing with the Church."
I think that is the spirit of Bishop Sprague's address at Iliff. I think it is the spirit of Bishop Whitaker's response. Bishop Sprague said that he had been pondering the theme of his lecture for ten years or better. Now he is ready to test it with the Church. I value his openness. But, I profoundly disagree with some of his conclusions.
Do I, as a bishop, give up my right to think? Of course not. Do I, as a bishop, give up my right to think out loud? Of course not. What I do give up is my right to suggest that my personal opinion is the thinking of the Church. I have been set apart to guard, transmit, teach, and proclaim the apostolic faith. It is my obligation to let you know when I am talking as Marion Edwards and when I am talking as a bishop of the Church. That distinction is a slippery slope indeed. If I have not slipped on it, perhaps it is because I have not, to date, had the courage to climb it! I commend Bishop Sprague for his courage to climb this "slippery slope" but suggest that he distinguish more carefully between what is his "personal journey" and the journey of the Church through 2000 years.
Having said that, let me continue the A testing of the spirits" begun by Bishop Sprague. In an effort to make classical, traditional language come alive in this century, Bishop Sprague has attempted to let modernity's light shine upon the teaching of the Church. This is often the task of apologetics, those ways in which the Church explains itself to the world. As the Scripture says, always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you" (1 Peter 3:15b). This is not a time for angry diatribe and bitter finger-pointing. It is a time for correction and accountability, let us grant others the same we ask for ourselves: to be judged at our best and not at our worst.
Bishop Sprague's address runs about 2500 words long. I do not want to misquote him, but I am sure that long quotes would not be very helpful in this context. You can obtain the full texts of both Bishop Sprague's and Bishop Whitaker's speeches by going to our North Carolina Web Page at www.nccumc.org. I trust that my references here will be fair to my brothers and colleagues in the Council of Bishops.
Again, Bishop Sprague has sought to take traditional teachings of the Church and examine them under the light of God's continuing revealing presence. He says he is unpacking ancient creeds "on behalf of those who find the ancient creedal language confusing or implausible." We all do that. We do it every time we open our hymnal to 880 and 881 and see those asterisks. "I believe in the holy catholic-asterisk: universal-church." Those asterisks are an effort to unpack an ancient creed for those who find the ancient language confusing. To do so is a noble venture, but I fear that in unpacking, Bishop Sprague might have thrown away some of the clothes that were in the suitcase, not just to get a more up-to-date style, but, alas to throw them away!
For me, the most serious lapse in Bishop Sprague's address, which was on Christology, was to diminish the reality of the Holy Trinity. He notes that Jesus became the Son of God by virtue of his absolute human obedience to God the Father in his statement: "Jesus was not born the Christ, rather by the confluence of grace with faith he became the Christ." I believe that Roberta Bondi, in her recent address at the Duke Convocation, better emphasized the second person of the Trinity when she described Jesus as the fullness of God, not just the submissive Jesus, but the wisdom and outpouring love of God.
I agree with Bondi and I miss in the bishop's statement the claim of Paul in 1 Corinthians 8:6b: "one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist." I miss in Bishop Sprague's argument the power of Hebrews 1:1-3a: "Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God's glory and the exact imprint of God's very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word." I fear that the Son of God described in Bishop Sprague's Christology has the attraction of any great hero, but falls short of the eternal fullness of the second person of the Trinity. Bishop Sprague has chosen not to include the gospel according to St. John in his statement, not calling to our minds that "the word became flesh and lived among us" (John 1:14). He omits John's gospel because he contends that John wrote at a time of different theological controversy in the Church, thereby writing differently than did the synoptic writers. I do not understand that writing differently means that St. John was wrong in what he wrote.
Richard B. Hays writes, "Despite widespread views to the contrary, it is NOT true that only John teaches a high Christology. The synoptics contain the virgin birth story, the accounts of the transfiguration, Jesus walking on water and calming storms, etc. Even Mark contains numerous stories that hint reverentially at Jesus' mysterious identity with the God of Israel...All four Gospels are a theologically interpretive retelling of the Jesus tradition."
Bishop Sprague feels that Jesus is normative and unique. Nevertheless, in answering a question during the discussion period following his lecture, the bishop said he had to be open to the possibility that another might come. I suppose so. There is no box in which we can successfully confine God. Having said that, I affirm that the Scripture seems clear that no one is saved except through Jesus Christ. Yet such an affirmation is also compatible with a view that people from other religions can be saved–because, as William Abraham suggests, "the eternal Son of God who is fully manifest in Jesus of Nazareth is actively at work in all creation and history."
There is a danger, in following the full line of what Bishop Sprague has said, of diluting the Trinity by making the Son of God a kind of "johnny-come-lately" to the godhead, one who arrived only when he began to be fully obedient to God. Again, Roberta Bondi, at our recent Duke Convocation, reminded us that the Son of God was not a submissive man but the fullness of God in the second person of the Trinity. In fact, what Bishop Sprague is advocating here is not the Church's apostolic teaching about the Trinity. He is teaching the 2nd and 3rd century theory of adoptionism which was long ago rejected by the Church. Adoptionism was "the theory that Jesus was in nature a man who became the Son of God by adoption..." This view "...argued that the son of man at his conception, was spiritually, not substantially or physically, accepted by the will of the Son of God." (Encyclopedia of Religion, edited by Vergilius Fern, p. 5)
When Bishop Sprague speaks of the virgin birth, the atonement, and the resurrection of the body, I sense that he has studied hard and thoughtfully the biblical texts and the teaching of the early church. The problem I have is not with his intention or his careful thinking. The problem I have is what he has omitted from the conversation: the authority of the canon of Scripture. The Articles of Religion of The United Methodist Church remind us that the Scriptures contain all that is necessary for our salvation. Wesley believed in what we might call "soteriological inerrancy." If you need it in order to be saved, it is in the Scripture.
But Wesley taught us that all of the biblical canon is the authority for the Church. He was very helpful in the Preface to the Standard Sermons when he wrote of how we resolve difficulties we encounter in understanding some of the biblical text, some of the biblical images, yes, some of the biblical metaphors. Unless you think Jesus said, "Baaa" because he was the Lamb of God, you believe that the Bible has metaphors! Back to John Wesley on how we sort through the places where the Bible is not as clear. He wrote this about how he studied the Bible:
So what was John Wesley's advice when facing a tough text? (1) Get alone with God. (2) Pray about it. (3) Consult parallel places in Scripture; let Scripture talk to Scripture. (4) Have holy conferencing with other believers, and (5) Read what the ancient fathers and mothers of the Church said.
Mr. Wesley believed–and so do I–that all Scripture is twice inspired: once when it was written and again when it is read. All of this to say that the strangeness that Bishop Sprague has found in the virgin birth, the resurrection of the body, and the atonement, may spring from not always letting all of Scripture speak to the rest of Scripture. As indicated earlier, this principle of letting all of the Scripture speak to the rest of Scripture should also be applied to letting the whole of Christian doctrine speak to difficulties about particular doctrines. In order for Bishop Sprague to avoid the pitfall of "robbing the Church of its gospel," it is essential that we "test the spirits" through what has been called a "robust" understanding of the faith.
The Discipline in Part II entitled, "Doctrinal Standards and Our Theological Task" (p. 59) reminds us that "The United Methodist Church stands continually in need of doctrinal reinvigoration for the sake of authentic renewal, fruitful evangelism and ecumenical dialogue." Our theological task serves the Church's doctrinal reinvigoration by "interpreting the world's needs and challenges to the Church and by interpreting the gospel (doctrine) to the world." "The Church encourages serious reflection across the theological spectrum." (p. 75) This theological conversation and interaction with Church doctrine is an ongoing process in which one has to be careful not to "throw the baby out with the bath water." My fear is that Bishop Sprague's theological critique is in danger of "throwing the baby out."
For example, when Bishop Sprague says that "the gift of eternal life as relationship of atonement with God continues after death," he may have in mind Jesus' word to the penitent thief. "This day you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 24:43) or perhaps the apostle Paul's word that he would rather "depart and be with Christ." (Philippians 1:23) Again, at our recent Duke Convocation, Richard Hays spoke about the resurrection of the body. He pressed us to consider the Greek meaning of these tests. I believe that the stronger and clearer teaching of the New Testament is the Christian hope for the resurrection of the body. I profess that hope every Sunday of my life! I think the bishop has created a straw person to knock down when he says he does not believe in the resuscitation of the body of Jesus. The biblical teaching of the resurrection is a teaching about a new body, not a resuscitation of the old body. "Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away..." (Revelation 21:1) If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation." (2 Corinthians 5:17) "New," which redeems the "old," is the biblical word which I find missing from a consideration of Bishop Sprague's resurrection theology.
There are, as the bishop says, numerous theories of the atonement. He is bothered by the idea of a substitutionary atonement which sees Jesus' death as the appeasement of an angry God.
Well done, Bishop Sprague! Jesus took our sin, and the wages of sin are death. The death is not to make God happy; the death is the sad pay for sin. I don't think God said, "Hooray!" That's enough blood; that ought to do it." I think Bishop Whitaker is right: "the cross is the self-giving of God the Father in the self-giving obedience of God the Son in the Son's radical identification with all of sinful humanity."
Bishop Sprague also addresses the teaching of the virgin birth. He argues that it is a truthful myth, not a historical fact. I think he is right in addressing this topic with a careful touch. After all, it is not part of the teachings of Paul; it is not part of early apostolic preaching embedded in Acts; it is not part of the Johannine or Marcan gospel accounts. It is probably true that the early creeds were arguing for the humanity and divinity of Christ when they said he was born of the virgin Mary. The emphasis was not that he was born of virgin Mary. Both the Articles of Religion and the Confession of Faith of The United Methodist Church only mention this teaching in passing. Nevertheless, although the doctrine of the virgin birth is not traditionally a core doctrine, it is a teaching of the Church. Its truth is clear: God was active in the birth of Jesus, not simply in the miracle of conception, but in the incarnation of what God had to say to us: the Word became flesh. Bishop Whitaker offers a helpful observation: "For us in a post-modern culture, the virginal conception of Jesus provides an opportunity to challenge...the naturalistic reductionism of the (sic) Enlightment."
I am glad that Bishop Sprague has said publicly what his own personal journey of faith has produced. However, in his zeal to make the faith understandable to modern ears, the bishop seems to have accommodated too much to the culture. I also note that Bishop Sprague understands his statements to be faithful to the creeds of the Church and to the historic teaching of the Church. Nevertheless, I fear that while he would not want to deny or diminish the apostolic faith, he has opened the doors so widely that much of the apostolic faith could easily be lost and/or stolen. Perhaps this is an appropriate time to remember that Leslie Newbigin, Scottish missionary statesman and former Bishop of the Church of South India, never tired of insisting that "the incarnation and resurrection of Christ will fit into no other world-view than the one of which they are the cornerstone." Although I do not agree with Bishop Sprague's conclusions, I am grateful that he has moved me more into my responsibility as a teaching bishop.
I hope the dialogue will continue with Bishop Sprague, Bishop Whitaker, and more pointedly, with the teachings of the Church, the apostolic tradition, and the biblical witness. May this dialogue move the Church, as called for in our Discipline (pp. 41-86) to engage in doctrinal reinvigoration through the fulfillment of "our theological task." The guidelines for this "task" are found on pages 74-104 of The Discipline.
In conclusion, as suggested earlier, I truly believe the Church has been given the faith of the apostles. This faith I have received. This faith, and no other, I truly believe. The faith of the Church has been lived, preached, taught, explored, defended, and transmitted for 2000 years. Furthermore, I believe with all of my mind and heart, that the Church's faith is true, and that the truth of this faith is both good and beautiful. To be sure, the Church's faith is more than a few narrow propositional statements. Indeed, the faith of the Church offers to the world a grand, intellectual tradition that is far more compelling than any other tradition now available. Therefore, in its encounter with today's "cultured despisers" of religion (Schleiermacher), the Church's faith need not fear for its life, need not submit to their presuppositions and prejudices. The faith of the Church is too intellectually powerful, too grand, too splendid, too life-giving for us to be guided by fear!
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